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Misconduct review will target judge's anti-Obama email

A federal judicial council opens a misconduct review of Montana District Judge Richard F. Cebull, who sent a racially charged email about President Obama from his courthouse computer.

March 01, 2012|By Richard A. Serrano, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington —  

The Judicial Council of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals opened a misconduct review of Montana's chief federal District Court judge for forwarding a racially charged email about President Obama from his courthouse computer.

Judge Richard F. Cebull asked for the review as calls mounted Thursday for his immediate resignation. Legal ethics experts predicted the incident would result in a public admonishment.

The judge, appointed byPresident George W. Bush12 years ago, maintained after the email became public that it was meant to be seen as anti-Obama and not racist, but added, "I can obviously understand why people would be offended."

Cebull also wrote a letter of apology to Obama on Thursday.

"I sincerely and profusely apologize to you and your family for the email I forwarded," Cebull wrote. "I have no one to blame but myself." He assured the president that it "will never happen again" and added, "Please forgive me."

Based in Billings, the 67-year-old judge says he forwarded the email to six "old buddies" after receiving it from his brother. It describes a boy asking his mother why he is black when she is white, and her response: "Don't ever go there Barack! From what I can remember about that party, you're lucky you don't bark."

The email was titled, "A Mom's Memory," and started with the words, "Normally I don't send or forward a lot of these, but even by my standards, it was a bit touching. I want all of my friends to feel what I felt when I read this. Hope it touches your heart like it did mine."

The judge forwarded the email Feb. 20, and it eventually was obtained by the Great Falls Tribune, a Montana newspaper that asked Cebull about it. He told the paper, "I apologize to anybody who is offended."

The Obama administration declined to comment on the email. "I saw that report," said White House Press Secretary Jay Carney. "I haven't got anything really to say about it."

The Montana Human Rights Network began collecting signatures urging Cebull to resign. "The content of this email dehumanizes people of color and women," the organization said. "People of color and women appearing before Judge Cebull will have valid concerns about his ability to treat them fairly."

Common Cause announced it had filed a formal complaint with the 9th Circuit. "If he has any respect for his office and for ideals of equality and human dignity on which our country was founded," President Bob Edgar said, "Judge Cebull will step down today."

Stephen Gillers, a New York University School of Law expert on judicial ethics, predicted that Cebull would either be privately scolded by Judge Alex Kozinski, chief judge of the 9th Circuit or — at the most — publicly admonished. He and others do not see the case rising to a congressional impeachment.

Kozinski himself came under fire in 2008 for maintaining a publicly accessible website that featured sexually explicit photos and videos; an ethics investigation led to a judicial panel's admonishment.

As for Cebull, Gillers said the judge "can't backpedal on this as not being racist."

He said that 10 years ago U.S. District Judge Alan McDonald in Washington state was publicly reprimanded for sending racially charged notes to his clerks from the bench during a trial involving Latino and black defendants. Gillers believes Cebull's behavior is more akin to McDonald's than Kozinski's because he used his courthouse computer and sent the message from chambers.

"That's what makes this case interesting," Gillers said.

Steven Lubet of Northwestern University Law School, another judicial ethics expert, said it was likely Cebull would receive a public letter of admonishment. How far the matter goes, Lubet added, "depends on how convincingly he apologizes."

But Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, did not expect Cebull to suffer beyond the current public criticism.

"If Cebull is punished," Turley said, "what about the fact that probably 99% of judges use their office emails for private messages as the rest of us do?"

richard.serrano@latimes.com

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